OLNEY – Jeff Ulsamer knelt next to Sunshine, a beautiful black husky with ice-blue eyes, and massaged her ears while reassuring the terrified animal. Attached to a dog sled for only her third time, Sunshine was the lone dog in a yard of more than 100 other canines that was silent.
Ulsamer rescued Sunshine and two other huskies from the Flathead County Animal Shelter only days before. He thought they could have a better life at his Olney home and business, Dog Sled Adventures, than they did in the shelter.
“They do OK with the other dogs; the people are what they have problems with,” Ulsamer said. “It’s going to take that dog a while to come out of her shell, if she ever does.”
Life in Olney is a far cry from the existence these dogs knew only months ago. The huskies and husky-mixes were rescued from a squalid trailer owned by Juanita McGranor in Evergreen in June. Flathead County officials seized 25 dogs out of the trailer. Two of the dogs – one of them Sunshine – gave birth almost immediately after their arrival, bringing the total to 41 at the county animal shelter.
Three of the rescued dogs died after surgery, according to shelter director Trista Sapp. An animal autopsy showed the canines died from being generally unhealthy, Sapp said.
McGranor pleaded guilty to animal abuse in October and was sentenced to three years deferred probation and was ordered to pay $11,000 in restitution and complete 100 hours of community service as part of a plea deal.
But that still left the matter of 38 homeless huskies at the animal shelter. Due to a population overflow, the huskies were housed at the Northwest Montana Fairgrounds. That’s where Ulsamer met and put collars on all the dogs for the animal shelter. Once the dogs were collared and put on a line, they could be touched, Ulsamer said, which helped the shelter begin the process of socializing the animals.
“These dogs are much better off kept on a line where you can actually pet them,” Ulsamer said.
Ulsamer knows a thing or two about rehabilitating dogs left in shelters. His first sled team, 30 years ago, was made up entirely of rescue dogs in Colorado Springs, Colo. Ever since then, he has made it a point to visit animal shelters and take on a few new trail companions.
“I give these dogs a purpose,” Ulsamer said. “I give them a job.”
Dog Sled Adventures houses 113 dogs, 101 of which are active sled-pullers. Ulsamer runs more than 700 commercial sled trips a year, so having more dogs helps spread out the workload. In total, he has taken in six of June’s rescued huskies.
When the huskies were seized from the feces-coated trailer in June, McGranor claimed they were wolf hybrids, meaning the county animal shelter could not adopt the dogs out directly to the public. Sapp and Ulsamer doubt the hybrid claim, but say it cannot be disproved without DNA testing.
Now, after several rescue groups in the Northwest took many of the dogs, there are still seven huskies at the shelter. Four are still too wary of people to be put on a leash and prefer to live outdoors. They have made considerable progress in Sapp’s mind, because they are at least willing to approach humans for a treat.
“That’s a long way for them to even come and take treats out of your hands,” Sapp said.
The three huskies kept inside the shelter are slightly more socialized but still scared of people. Elvira, a female with scars on her face from dogfights, is perhaps the only dog that could be adopted without being considered “special needs,” Sapp said.
All of the huskies would need a fenced yard, plenty of care and patience from their new owners, Sapp said. They still need time to adapt to their new surroundings and handle dealing with people, she said, because they rarely interacted with humans before.
Any husky adoptions now go through the rescue organization Birdsong Siberian Husky Rescue, based out of Idaho. The application process is rigorous, Sapp said, but it is only to protect the dogs and their potential owners.
“They’re going to need a lot of time and you’re going to need patience,” Sapp said. “They’ve never lived a life. They all have potential; they’re nice dogs, they’re not aggressive. They’re just scared.”
At Sled Dog Adventures, the latest husky additions are beginning to pick up on the idea of pulling a sled. Some, like a large male named Congo who is not yet quite in shape, need a little extra encouragement from their musher to stay on task.
But not Sunshine. During a recent trip out on the trail, she continually pulled against the harness; it was the only time her tail was not between her legs. Ulsamer will continue building a trusting relationship with Sunshine, with the hope that she will be comfortable enough to let him approach her without her cringing into the ground.
On the trail, though, she’s in her element.
“Look at her,” Ulsamer said as the sled pointed toward home. “She’s happy.”
For more information on Dog Sled Adventures, call Jeff Ulsamer at 881-BARK (2275). For information on adopting any shelter animal, call the Flathead County Animal Shelter at 752-1310.